Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Daren Shiau
By Yeow Kai Chai
Physical space and the concomitant issue of belonging these twin themes underline the works of Daren Shiau.
As a literary writer, he belongs to the so-called Class of '95, a generation of cosmopolitan Singaporean writers who came to prominence in the pre-millennial decade and went on to trigger a tectonic shift in how Singapore literature can be broadened and engaged outside academia.
From his debut novel Heartland (Ethos Books, 1999) onwards, Shiau constantly teases and interrogates rootedness and rootlessness, which trace a continually evolving Singaporean identity beyond the early nation-building decades. The book had earned a Singapore Literature Prize commendation award a year earlier, and signalled the arrival of a searching, restless Generation X sensibility that was explored a year later in his first collection of poetry, Peninsular: Archipelagos and Other Islands (Ethos Books, 2000).
Subsequently, he expanded his repertoire: He acknowledged his musical inspirations by releasing a quizzical collection of flash fiction pieces, Velouria (Firstfruits, 2007), named after a track by the Boston alternative-rock band the Pixies; and co-edited a mono-titular anthology entitled Coast (Math Paper Press, 2010). An updated edition of Velouria by Math Paper Press is due for release at Singapore Writers Festival in November, with the inclusion of a previously unpublished story 'Sedimentary'.
1. What are you reading right now?
Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco. I was privileged to share a panel with him at the Melbourne Writers Festival a few years ago, and we exchanged novels at the end. I am entranced by his writing given its resonances with current events in The Philippines. I've also been re-reading Leonard Cohen since his passing last year; I have deep respect for the man.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I would really like to experience the ennui and dislocation of Meursault in Albert Camus' The Stranger. It is one of my favourite books, and I've read it several times. I would like to get under his skin, but for the tenure of the novel, not permanently we all know that it doesn't end very well for him (laughs).
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
That I am qualified, in any way, to be teaching writing. I do enjoy my work as a mentor with the Mentor Access Project of the National Arts Council, and I am humbled to be invited by schools to deliver writing workshops from time to time. But, unlike most writers in Singapore, I do not hold any graduate qualification in literature. My last brush with literary education was at A-level. I wrote my first book at 25, not having understood anything about narrative techniques, and I still feel that the novel suffers from my lack of understanding as to the fundamentals of long-form fiction at that time.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
For a living author, it will probably be JM Coetzee. For writers no longer in our midst, Goh Poh Seng as a fiction writer, and Wisława Szymborska as a poet. I feel a connection with their narrative styles. I have had the privilege of meeting two of them. Coetzee, in Canberra, together with Alvin Pang and Toh Hsien Min during one of our literary tours; and Goh Poh Seng, when he finally returned to Singapore. His family gifted a posthumous story to be titled 'Coast' in an anthology I was involved with, for which I am very grateful. What I remember most about Coetzee and Poh Seng were their phenomenal humility, and willingness to share.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Yes, I do. I think the easiest way to develop a writer's block is to lock yourself up in a room with a typewriter, or to go to the countryside to be alone. My most lucid thoughts in writing come when I am living life in a city: Rushing between obligations, getting lost in a new place, being trapped in a crowded, unmoving train.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
Tenacity. Whether it's performing or visual arts, writing or editing, one needs to keep practising; and that requires doggedness. Of course, there are those of us who write effortlessly, but that is rare, and I am certainly not one who does.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
'Deplore' is a strong word. I think that it is hubris for writers not to read widely, or to seek out narratives created by others.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
"The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion" Albert Camus.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
I watch films and TV series more than I read these days. I should be reading more. But I do believe that TV is going through a renaissance now. And that a well-made TV series is the new novel, just as good film is the modern short story. It all comes down to narratives. My favourite TV series is The Wire.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
I would probably pick an art film. My favourite from last year were Manchester by the Sea starring Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck, and the Iranian film, The Salesman. Film directors I admire include Tsai Ming-liang, Andrey Zvyagintsev and Sofia Coppola. Sofia, I admit, in part because of her taste in music for her soundtracks (laughs).
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Fragility, impermanence. I also like words that are non-existent but rational. 'Velouria' and 'Epistrophy' do not exist in the English language, but are names of songs by the Pixies and Thelonious Monk that I really like I decided to name two pieces of microfiction after them. The word 'original', I think, is overused. It implies an intrinsic authenticity which I believe is a difficult claim; most things are derivative these days and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that include the following three items: Candy Says, the Pixies, archipelagos.
Candy says that she only listens to the Pixies, to surf rock, it's the only kind;
of music which can ebb and erode, the archipelagos of her mind."
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
A glass of manzanilla, or dry fino.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
3am. It's that perfect hour, neither night or day.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Probably dinner with Milan Kundera and Anna Karenina. Milan poses Anna as a centrepiece in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and it would be great to converse with, and watch them interact, over a few bottles of wine. Given that this is my last supper, I'd invite Godot for post-dinner drinks since he would either be very late or not turn up! (laughs). It'd be wonderful to have met Ezra Pound or James Joyce at some point in my life, but not at my final meal, probably (laughs).
16. You were among a group of Singaporean writers who came of age in the 1990s, formed bonds among yourselves and leveraged on the advent of the Internet and the accessibility of digital platforms to promulgate your writing here and overseas. Looking back at two decades, what do you think were some of the milestones of your generation?
I was very privileged to be part of this group, and fortunate to still be in touch with most of them socially. To borrow a concept from Taiwanese filmmakers, I think that generation was still is the third wave of Singapore literature. The first included giants like Edwin Thumboo, Lee Tzu Pheng and Arthur Yap, characterised in large part by their being part of the literary academic establishment. Then came personal heroes like Claire Tham and Simon Tay but unlike the third wave, I think they never came together as, dare I say, a movement, of friends, like what we have become. Milestones? The fact that we are still together, in large part. For the record, I have great admiration for what I consider the fourth wave writers like Cyril Wong and Alfian Sa'at. And Joshua Ip, which by my definition (by no means correct or authoritative) is leading the fifth wave, is doing the unimaginable I feel ignited by what he is achieving in his own small but important ways.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 16 No. 4 Oct 2017
"Moving at the speed of life." It is the last line of Heartland. It would be funny being etched on a tombstone, but that is probably why I would want it (laughs).